Post-covid-19, will leaders be up to the challenge of change?

Change in business, as in life, is difficult.  Whether you’re a small or large enterprise, the challenges of driving change are wide-ranging and complicated, driven often by an innate fear of the unknown, as Chris Jefford finds out

Back in 2016, The Guardian reported on ‘the most sophisticated experiment ever conceived on the relationship between uncertainty and stress.’

The article reported that ‘…its main finding was that all measures of stress, both subjective and objective, maxed out when uncertainty was highest.’ 

We just can’t deal with the pressure of not knowing the impact of the changes we make.

Yet, evolve we must. And the struggle of the CEO is to seek out new directions and galvanise the business to shift. It’s a complicated process involving a heady mixture of transformations across culture, infrastructure, value proposition, resources and behaviours to name just a few.

Each step in the process is riddled with fear and potential push-back.  And like having a child or going for a run, there’s always a reason to put it on hold.

Even if we build the momentum to change, actually influencing a permanent shift in behaviours is equally difficult.  The world agrees that climate change is bad, but who is taking the lead to drive change?  As a colleague once said: ‘no-one wants to be the one to pull out the Jenga brick that brings the whole thing crashing down’.

And then something happens that forces us to make a change. 

A person leaves and has to be replaced.  A health issue means an immediate change to lifestyle. A client demands a new way of working. An act of God. An act of War.

Or covid-19.  The virus that stopped the world.

In the space of a month or so we’ve seen the world make the sort of changes that, if you had brought them to a board meeting in January, you’d have been marched out of the building and labelled a loony.

Yet they’ve been made. 

A complete relocation and retooling of our workforce, globally, at the same time. Huge investments in technology infrastructure which will facilitate universal remote, cloud-based working and the mothballing of all physical office space for the foreseeable future. 

A drastic reduction in the carbon footprint of nations, businesses and citizens through the minimisation of commuting and traditional production outputs.  The cancellation of, well, everything.

And whilst this has been a huge shock to macro and micro economic performance, not to mention the mental and physical health of people the world over, it has resulted in a universal rebooting and reimagining of businesses in order to survive.

And the remarkable thing is that for many businesses it’s just kind of worked.

In a recent Financial Times article, Tom Stringer of US accountancy firm BDO said: ‘In six weeks, we’ve taken almost the entirety of the back offices of corporate America and moved them to kitchens and living rooms and it’s been pretty seamless.’

In my own small business – and this is being played out in businesses around the world, of all shapes and sizes – this enforced change hasn’t seen the expected freak out or resistance. The nature of the pandemic and the community spirit it has triggered has given businesses unique permission to experiment without fear of finger pointing in the event of failure.

And what are we seeing? New (better) behaviours when it comes to meetings, communication across the business and direction from senior leaders. A happier, more relaxed workforce who feel empowered by their newfound freedom (odd word under the circumstances, I grant you) of choosing their hours and their work/leisure/exercise patterns. 

We’re seeing a more forgiving approach to technologies such as video calling, and a more structured and collaborative approach to being productive with them. A colleague at Truant commented recently that we’re all just listening more – acknowledging the limitations of technology like lags and dropouts while ensuring everyone gets heard.  A positive unintended consequence of technology. You don’t hear of many of those, do you?

At Truant’s (new) fortnightly Lockdown Sessions, I was fascinated by how cohesive our business felt and how strong our culture remained in the face of forced separation. As a management team we have been made to focus on the important things: the things that keep our business running and keep our people feeling happy, secure and motivated.

And we’re not alone. Jim Collins of biotech and agriculture group Corteva said in a recent Financial Times article: ‘I’ve been so much more connected to 20,000 employees in the last six weeks than I have in the last six months thanks to the technology we are using.’

Whilst we know there is a certain ‘novelty’ to all of this (some of which is already wearing off), the reaction to the change has been startling, as have the new rituals and behaviours that have resulted. And as we start to look at future lockdown relaxations and a slow return to normality, leaders will face a big decision: 

To what extent do we hold on to these new ways of working?

As we find lockdowns relaxed around the world, we are faced with a choice. The choice to embrace a new way of working, or a choice to go back to how things were. There is power in nostalgia, and our hardwiring will pull us back towards the familiar again. But do we want to airbrush out everything we’ve learned in exchange for getting back to a vague memory of normal? 

Do we want to return to the office after experiencing so much positivity and flexibility? Will we revert back to seeing face-to-face, in-person meetings as key when video-to-video is maintaining productivity and is in many ways leading to better meeting outcomes?  Do we really want to ramp up our carbon footprint again?

It’s not just small businesses that are wrestling with these issues. Barclays CEO Jes Stanley noted: ‘The notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past’. Similarly, S4 Capital’s Sir Martin Sorrell is expecting it to herald a ‘permanent change’ to his working practices and has already started ending some site leases.

A large part of this decision-making lies in understanding the extent to which you believe that your market, your customers and your people will bounce back to normal in the time it takes for economies to reopen. Do you believe that the world has changed? Is it permanent? Has this pandemic impacted the world in the long-term?

According to Tali Shart, author of Facts Aren’t Enough: The Psychology of False Beliefs,  there are four factors that determine whether we will alter our beliefs: our old belief, our confidence in that old belief, new data and our confidence in that data. The further away that new data is from what you already believe, the less likely we are to change.

So, this is an important time for leaders; time to establish how the game has changed and how our businesses should react. Brave leaders will challenge their teams to think about what the future holds. No one can predict it, of course, but what many businesses have had to do is go back to first principles, orientate themselves and react accordingly.

We need to properly understand the degree to which our customers, suppliers, people and proposition have been affected by this period of enforced change – how have their beliefs been challenged, how has the culture around them changed, what are the jobs they need done? 

Time spent thinking deeply about these things will invariably lead us to questions as to how we now make money, who our customers are and how we manage resources and overheads; questions that would have appeared rock-solid two months ago for many businesses. They may not be aligned to what’s gone before, the data may feel far from what they believe to be true.

And then we have to go back to those hard yards, the important work of change. Those hard decisions, the fear of the unknown, those difficult conversations and battles with those who are resistant, that little voice in your head that says: ‘it’s all okay now, back to work’. As Harvard Business Review recently noted: ‘… the business environment that you land in when the pandemic comes to an end may be very different from what it was before the crisis began.’

Chris Jefford is Founder and CEO at Truant London

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